Monday, August 10, 2009

The face of history

John Quincy Adams was the youngest of the statesmen to emerge from the American Revolution. He was just eleven years old when he first accompanied his father on a diplomatic mission to France. At age fourteen he went to Russia, without his father, to assist another mission that sought diplomatic recognition for the United States. Seven decades later this portrait was drawn in pencil during his final hours of life.

After a long career as a diplomat, as Secretary of State under James Monroe, and a single term as president, John Quincy Adams spent seventeen years in the House of Representatives as a congressman from Massachusetts. His last public act was to vote against a bill to honor veterans of the Mexican-American War. After uttering a loud "No!" he collapsed from a stroke. Adams was too weak to be moved from the building; he lingered for two days.

The librarian's notes on the mounting for this image read, "The original sketch of Mr Adams, taken when dying by AJS. In the Rotunda of the Capitol at Washington".
This is not a well known image, probably because the staining and fade are so extensive that the face is barely discernible. Depending on several factors stains in images could be difficult or easy to fix. A medium sized stain in a clear blue sky is easy to correct. Stains that interact with image features are more challenging. This example is particularly difficult: dozens of small stains intersect the subject's facial features. A single careless edit could transform a placid expression into a scowl.

The restoration was several days' work interrupted by about a month's hiatus. Normally I wouldn't attempt work on an image this badly damaged. It isn't great art or even technically correct. The depiction of the pillow is primitive and Adams's neck ends without a shoulder to support it. But there was something about the historic context that made this exceptional. The eyes kept drawing me in: there in 1848, as those lids shut, the living memory of the revolution faded from public life.
It feels like an honor to find those eyes again 161 years later. I wonder why there aren't more people looking for these things.

1 comment:

bernielomax said...

Excellent work. It's like a new work, and I do even like the artistic qualities that are now visible - previously hidden.